Experiencing Culture Shock, Offensive Questions from Both Sides of the Global Divide

Globalization challenges stereotypes and creates culture shocks. When people are insulated and isolated in their own countries, they appear foolish when they encounter people from the world outside what they think of as “normal.”

Shortly after I arrived in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, a bank officer asked if I would like to apply for a credit card or a loan. Perhaps, I said. “I just have a few questions for you,” the newly-installed credit officer from rural India asked me. He appeared a bit unsure and nervous. “I see that you work at a university and are a teacher,” he observed. “What’s your caste?” he asked.

“Excuse me?” I responded, puzzled.

“What’s your caste?” he repeated. “Most teachers are Brahmin. Are you Brahmin? We give Brahmins the best rates.”

“I don’t know,” I replied, still puzzled. “We don’t have castes in the United States.”

“Well then, do you have any Dalits, or er um, untouchables in your family?” he asked.

“No, I don’t think so,” I replied.

“Oh, that’s good then,” he answered, and scribbled a note in my file.

His eyes grew large and the tone of his voice incredulous. “I just heard on the news that Americans like gay marriage. I heard on the news that 50 percent of Americans want to marry gay? Could this possibly be true? How will Americans have children?”

“No, it’s not true that Americans want to personally marry gays,” I replied sharply. “About 10 percent of the population of any society is usually gay. America’s Supreme Court just voted to make it legal.”

Seeing my discomfort, he changed the subject. “Do you have children?” he asked.

“Yes. I have two sons,” I said.

“Only two? Why so few? Are they obedient? Will they work for you?”

“No, they are not particularly obedient,” I smiled. “And no, they will not work for me. They will choose their own jobs for themselves.”

“What about your wife, is she obedient?”

“Not at all, I’m afraid,” I laughed.

“Would she want to use your credit card?” he asked. “Can’t you discipline her by not giving her money?”

“She has her own job as a university teacher. She can get her own credit card,” I explained.

“Oh, two teachers, married to each other. Then you really are Brahmin,” he said, making another note in his ledger.

“Who chose your wife?” he asked.

“I did. I chose her,” I said emphatically.

“What about your parents, your aunts and uncles? Didn’t they have a say in whether you should marry her?”

“No, they did not,” I said, getting more impatient with this line of questioning for a simple credit card.

“But you will choose your sons wives, won’t you? Based on the reputation of her family?”

“Family customs are very different in the United States,” I said, sounding exasperated, I’m sure.

“Why do you Americans allow your wives to work outside the home?” he asked. “Why don’t you insist that your wife cover her hair outside the home? Doesn’t that make you feel unmanly and threatened that some other man might find her attractive and steal her?”

Communicating that I was clearly annoyed and fed up with this questioning, I stood up to leave. The man smiled and said he would order me a credit card with the best rate, because “you are Brahmin.”

I thanked him and left rather brusquely, thinking to myself, what a backwoods fool, so ignorant of American cultural norms. But then I recalled the times I had asked culturally offensive questions when I first arrived in Turkey in 2009, obsessed with polygamy, honor killings, terrorism and assuming some connection between the teachings of Islam and these things, which my adult students did not see whatsoever. They quickly set me straight, while expressing sorrow over 9/11 in the US. One of the students noted that Americans, with their shamelessness over divorce and multiple marriages, seem to practice polygamy much more than Muslims. Honor killings at the time were estimated to be between 100 and 200 per year in rural areas of Turkey. When I asked about that, one of my Turkish students retorted with a question about the crime rate and number of killings with guns in the US. Touche, I replied. The firearms homicide and suicide rates as well as the overall crime rate were much higher in the US than in Turkey or the UAE.

I also remembered striking up a conversation with a middle-aged American woman at a restaurant in Goreme, Cappadocia, Turkey. She had paid something like $1,200 to come to Turkey for a long weekend from the states. The Turks were amazed at such extravagant wealth. Having read that it is unsafe for a woman to travel alone in Turkey, she hired TWO male bodyguards or escorts as part of a package that included round-trip flights from Istanbul to Kayseri, hour-long taxi ride from Kayseri to Cappadocia, nights in a hotel in Goreme, an hour performance by whirling dervishes, and a few other introductions to Turkish culture. I overheard her asking naive questions of her hosts, revealing that she had not done the most basic homework, such as “Who was Ataturk?” “When was the Turkish Republic formed?” and “I’ve heard that you Turkish men do not like women who challenge or disagree with you, and are likely to beat your women. Is that true?” How was a Turkish man supposed to respond to that?

She did not get her money’s worth. From our observation, it is not unsafe for a woman to travel alone in Turkey. The bodyguards were unnecessary. She could have booked a flight from Istanbul to Kayseri for $60, a bus from Kayseri to Cappadocia for $14, a night at a hotel in Goreme for $100 or less, a performance by the whirling dervishes for $40. In other words, she could have spent less than $500, or paid for a friend to accompany her from the states, for less than what she paid.

If at all possible, Turkey should be savored, not crammed into a few days. If you can’t spend at the very least a week in this country, don’t bother coming until you can spend the time…unless of course you’re here on business and your boss is paying the tab.

She was as clueless as the “backwoods Indian” was to me. The moral of this lesson is, when you meet a stranger from another country, don’t ask the first offensive question that comes into your head, and don’t show off your ignorance of their country. Don’t think throwing out money insures quality or a safe experience.

There are other kinds of cultural shocks: visiting a neighborhood in Miami or another American city, for example, and finding no one who speaks English; calling a bank or other business and hearing language choices: “For English, press 1; for Spanish, press 2; for Chinese, press 3; for French, press 4.” But actually, the dominance of English in the US is far higher than it was in the late 19th and early 20th century because formal English language training in public schools is now widely available. In the 19th century or at the turn of the 20th century, you could easily visit neighborhoods in major cities and find that the dominant language was Italian, Greek, German, Russian, Chinese, or even Gaelic (Irish/Scottish, now almost a dead language).

My ancestors, who came to America from Scotland in the 1700s, spoke almost all Gaelic when they arrived. With no formal schooling until the 19th century, they probably spoke and wrote mostly Gaelic until the great ethnic assimilation of the US civil war in the 1860s.

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